Benjamin Dalton (Birmingham): Relaxing with Catherine Malabou: approaches to letting go in philosophy and neuroscience (delivered on 15th June 2022)
This paper will explore themes of relaxation, letting be, and letting go in the work of the contemporary French philosopher Catherine Malabou. Writing at the intersections of philosophy, neuroscience, and other diverse disciplines, the concept at the core of Malabou’s work is that of plasticity: the ways in which the body and brain are ‘plastic’, and thus radically mutable and transformable. Malabou’s work is concerned with the question of how we might activate or embrace this plasticity for socio-political change and emancipation. One of responses to this ‘how’, I will argue, is to do precisely with modes of relaxation, letting be, and letting go that are more or less latent in Malabou’s elaboration of plasticity. These modes of relaxation and release are not to be confused with ideas of rest, R&R, stress-relief, wellness, etc.; rather, I argue, they invoke or induce a radical state of self-abandonment or self-shattering (of the body, brain, spirit) at play in Malabou’s accounts of profound transformation and metamorphosis. In his book La Soltura del cuerpo (2018), Cristóbal Durán analyses what he refers to as ‘la soltura’ in Malabou’s account of the plastic body and brain, which might translate from the Spanish as ‘ease’, ‘release’, ‘setting free’, but also ‘skill’. Durán here draws upon instances where Malabou describes plasticity through a lexis of release or letting go. Meanwhile, Malabou herself writes a preface to Anne Dufourmantelle’s Puissance de la douceur (2013), in which she praises the radical potentiality of Durfourmantelle’s concept of douceur, softness or gentleness. This gentleness, Malabou stresses, is not the kind of relaxation we find in neo-liberal approaches to meditation, mindfulness, yoga, etc., but an altogether more fundamental and radical instance of letting go. Bringing together these ideas from Malabou, Durán, and Dufourmantelle, I want to extend these theorisations of relaxation across three other interlocutors: the French Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard (Cerveau et Méditation, 2017), who brings philosophy, meditation, and neuroscience together; the architects and philosophers Shusaku Arakawa and Madeline Gins, who design built environments which relax and transform the body; and experimentations with psychedelics in the pursuit of neural and socio-political transformation in the movement known as ‘acid communism’. I ask: what technologies and practices (medical, architectural, spiritual, etc.) might induce the kinds of relaxation present in Malabou’s philosophy? What practical implications and potentials would these states have for the body and mind? And what forms of socio-political transformation might these states of relaxation bring about?
Nadia Kiwan (Aberdeen): Decolonial approaches to laïcité as a mode to re-think contemporary Islamophobia (delivered on 1st June 2022)
This paper argues that in order to better understand how political Islamophobia functions in contemporary French society, we need to examine how Islam is simultaneously constructed as a ‘problem’ for laïcité as well as being its beneficiary. This contradictory configuration whereby Islam and by extension, French Muslims are seen to be outside the regime of political secularism embodied by laïcité as well as being enabled by that same regime is premised on two dominant understandings of laïcité. The first dominant conception of laïcité argues that it is based on the strict separation of public and private sphere and that religious identity does not or should not have a political sense; that religious faith is a private or individual matter (Roy 2005). A second dominant conception of laïcité argues that French political secularism, as embodied in the 1905 law of separation between the Church and State protects freedom of conscience, just as much as it circumscribes it. However, in both these approaches to laïcité, there is an unspoken assumption that there is some sort of anterior ‘pure’ laïc ideal, which simply needs to be recovered and reinforced or in the case of the second, ‘laïcité falsifiée’ narrative (Baubérot 2014), needs to be ‘knocked back into shape’. In both cases, the emblematic date of 1905 and the various articles of the separation law are seen to present the template for rehabilitating laïcité. However, this paper argues that a decolonial approach to laïcité is necessary to uncover how Islamophobia is enabled by discourses invoking the need to uphold a political principle which emerged at the height of French imperialism. A decolonial approach to the concept of secularism would fundamentally deconstruct the idea that laïcité is a stable, equality-bearing framework on the one hand and that religious minorities are the “problem” on the other. This paper and the paper immediately below were delivered in the same seminar; please see below for the recording of both.
Jim Wolfreys (KCL): The Macron presidency and the sanctification of Islamophobia (delivered on 1st June 2022)
Emmanuel Macron’s victory over Marine Le Pen in the 2017 presidential election was heralded as a triumph of progressive European liberalism over the forces of reactionary nationalism. Macron located himself at the centre of ‘a new global humanist project’ and spoke out against drawing up more laws to ‘hunt down’ those who wore the hijab. Government ministers later denounced the ‘veil’ as something undesirable in society, attacked supermarkets for fostering ‘communitarianism’ by dedicating shelves to halal or kosher food, and condemned universities as hotbeds of ‘Islamo-leftism’ and ‘intersectionality’ contributing to the fragmentation of society and boosting Islamist terror. This paper attempts to explain this trajectory by assessing claims that Macronism is a response to the inability of a neoliberal economic platform to secure a stable electoral base within the confines of the left-right divide in France (Amable and Palombarini), that his presidency is emblematic of the era of ‘post-ideological neo-liberalism’, and that its Islamophobia is therefore a function of political expediency rather than any ideological evolution (Traverso). To do so it locates the Islamophobic turn of the Macron presidency within the context of the reactionary radicalisation of mainstream French politics, persistent and widespread resistance to any serious reckoning with France’s history of slavery and colonialism, and the role of Republican universalism in hampering efforts to develop an effective anti-racist response to Islamophobia.
Daniel Nabil Maroun (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), 'Subjectivity and Seropositivity: Retranslating Guillaume Dustan' (delivered on 2 March 2022)
Queer subjectivity is often thought of as fluid, nonlinear. Such a viewpoint suggests a plurality of subjectivity for protagonists that, I argue, aligns with recent scholarship on retranslation theory, which views this process as a complex intersection of possible meanings for a text. I suggest, however, that retranslation reinforces queer subjectivity because both avoid teleological outcomes of their processes. Retranslation thus becomes a possible locus of the enunciation of subjectivity in the original text. Drawing on a retranslation of Guillaume Dustan’s Dans ma chambre, I argue that this process affords readers the opportunity to reexamine how Dustan intended to illustrate his existence in relation to his disease. Far from 'foreignizing' the text, as Berman (1990) purports, this exercise amplifies the author’s discursive traits, which highlight queer HIV praxis of the mid-90s. The book is canonical to French HIV/AIDS literature and additionally to autofictional subjectivity, that is to say how the author defines his existence in relationship to his disease. This talk compares the 1998 Serpent’s Tail edition of In My Room to the 2021 Semiotext(e) edition by unpacking how retranslation affords a new opportunity to augment the author’s simultaneous relationship to his disease and his existence apart from it. In lieu of viewing retranslation as an exercise that highlights the inadequacies of first translations, I will show how queer subjectivity finds renewal and strength in the retranslation process.
Thomas Clément Mercier (ANID FONDECYT, Universidad Adolfo Ibañez), 'Deconstruction and Dialectical Materialism: Divisions of Labour (Jacques Derrida's Seminars on Marx and Marxist Thought in the 1960s and 1970s)' (delivered on 9 February 2022)
It is usually considered that Derrida’s first real incursion into Marx’s thought was Specters of Marx, published in French in 1993. However, archival research has revealed that Derrida had already offered very lengthy and detailed readings of Marx and Marxist texts much earlier in his career as a philosopher. During the 1960s and 1970s – a very important and prolific period for French and international Marxist thought – Derrida wrote and taught extensively about Marx and Marxist authors (including Engels, Lenin, Gramsci, Benjamin, Althusser, Balibar, Buci-Glucksmann, and so on), but none of this work was ever published in Derrida’s lifetime. The discovery of these unpublished materials (approximately 1000 pages altogether) sheds new light on Derrida’s engagement with Marxism and materialism, but also on the ethical and political implications of deconstruction – much earlier than Derrida’s so-called ‘ethical-political turn’ (usually dated, with much bad faith, in the late 1980s or early 1990s). In this talk, we will discuss the political and philosophical aspects of the question – notably the relationship between deconstruction and dialectical materialism, in theoretical and political terms, with special focus on the notions of ‘labour’ and the ‘division of labour’ – but also its historical dimension, that is, the intellectual and political context of the French Marxist scene during the Cold War, before and after May 68: What was Derrida’s relationship with the fields of theoretical and political Marxism? Why did he decline to publish his deconstructive analyses of Marx and Marxist thought at the time? What was Derrida’s position with respect to his Marxist colleagues and contemporaries – in particular his close friend Althusser? How can we interpret the change of scenery justifying the publication of Specters of Marx in 1993, after the end of the Cold War and Althusser’s death? The paper builds on the argument developed in this open-access article.
Naomi Waltham-Smith (Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies, Warwick), 'Silent Feeling: What French Thought can Tell Us About the Limits of Free Speech' (delivered on 24 November 2021)
Earlier this year the Higher Education Minister Frédérique Vidal alleged that French academia is "gangrened with Isalmo-gauchisme” and members of Macron’s government have vied to outdo the Rassemblement National on anti-immigrant sentiment, rejecting concepts of 'state racism' and 'whiteness' as American imports incompatible with French universalism. As French scholars thus contend with intensified assaults on academic freedom not entirely dissimilar to the ones we face in the UK at the hands of a state likewise wedded to ongoing colonialism, what resources does recent French philosophy have for analysing and mounting resistance to this critical juncture? With particular focus on the differences and disagreements between Lyotard’s différend and Rancière’s mésentente, and alongside Derrida’s thinking about responsibility and silence, Foucault’s late work on parrhēsia and listening, and some recent trajectories in analytic voice epistemology, I will argue that we cannot reckon with the limits of free speech or academic freedom without considering the role of listening and its capacity to silence or let speak. The unequal distribution of voice disavowed by the marketplace-of-ideas models, is as much a function of the inequality of audibility as it is of uneven capacities to speak up. Naomi's paper is followed by a Response from Oliver Davis.
Adrian Rifkin, 'Musical chairs, or one too many mornings: the fiction of the archive' (delivered on 3 November 2021)
This seminar grows out of my late 1980s BBC 3 radio programme, 'A Barricade of the Paris Commune'. It was one of a series of six describing and reconstructing a photograph as if it were lost to vision, through words and sounds. This one is concerned with weaving together different strands of my researches into the visual cultures of the end of the Second Empire and the Commune. It is a condensation of archival and literary sources, sounds and musics and my aim in presenting to you is to think through a process of working through archives and their histories as ‘finished history’ in order to fabricate an artifact. An artifact that might be composed of different kinds of ‘dispositif’ to invent a reliable-enough effect of truth. I want to think of this as having been immersed in currents and counter currents of French literary and historiographical cultures between the 1970s and more recent years, and how this navigation imposed different modes of writing. Adrian's paper is followed by a Response from Karen Lang, Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art, and a discussion between the two speakers.
Colin Davis (RHUL), 'Interpretation and Overinterpretation: Camus’s "Jonas ou l’artiste au travail"' (delivered on Wednesday 20th October 2021)
This paper has three parts. The first revisits issues in hermeneutic theory concerning interpretation and overinterpretation, with reference to Gadamer, Eco and other theorists. How do we acknowledge the fluidity of meaning whilst retaining a sense that some interpretations are better than others? How do we distinguish between creative overreading and mere error or nonsense? The second part attempts a reading of Albert Camus’s short story ‘Jonas ou l’artiste au travail’, from the collection L’Exil et le royaume, giving particular weight to its epigraph from the Biblical Book of Jonah. My suggestion is that, whilst foregrounding a self-ironising portrait of the artist as flawed and all-too-human, the epigraph and its resonance through the story suggest a much more Romantic vision of the artist as the unacknowledged saviour of humankind. The third part of the paper attempts to look back, self-reflexively, on the interpretive moves involved in this reading, to assess its plausibility and value.